Sunday, March 2

First, Fair, Factual

Everybody knows the “Five Ws and the H:” Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. It’s on page 13 of your journalism 101 textbook. No story is complete unless it answers all six questions.

In my teaching days I also taught the “Three Fs:” First, fair, factual.

Let’s face it, in these days of “gotcha” journalism, being first is what counts, right? You can’t really get ‘em if you don’t get ‘em first. You gotta race to get your story on the web, on the air, on the printed page. If it’s incomplete or inaccurate you can always clean it up later, right? These days, more than ever, journalism is “instant history.” Hindsight, someone said, is 20/20. While we’re in hot pursuit some toes will get stepped on: tough.

So when I asked my students which of the three Fs was most important, I was never surprised when “First” came in…uh…first!

And factual is second, right?

You didn’t think you were going to get out of this without hearing a parable, did you?

I’m going to say it was 1970; right around there for sure. I was a producer at WOOD AM-FM-TV in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but still hoping to be a reporter. I had an understanding with News Director Dick Cheverton—if I could develop my own stories (and they were good enough) I could cover them myself.

So I jumped when I got a tip. Someone had dumped several half-dead dogs in a meat rendering truck in Kent County.


Look, the caller said, everybody knows—but no one wants to face the fact—that the local humane society has to kill dogs. Not far away from the Society offices, in an industrial area (I’m paraphrasing now), are two semi-trailers owned by a meat-rendering firm. Butchers, cattle, dairy and pig farmers, restaurants—anyone with dead livestock or fat and the like—takes it to this place. They get paid by the pound. The two semis are open at the top. Trucks go up a ramp and the “waste” is dumped into the trailers from above. Every week-or-so the trailers are covered and replaced.

I’m wondering how this guy knows all this when he dropped his bombshell: “The Humane Society of Kent County has a deal to dispose of its dead dog carcasses by dumping them into the trailers.”

It became obvious to me this guy was an insider when he said, “The Humane Society kills by lethal injection, but they screwed up on the last batch. The dogs dumped into the meat-rendering trucks were unconscious, but alive.”

I had a photographer and was out the door in five minutes.

When we got there, no one was around. We hiked up the ramp to look down into the two trailers, and what we found was exactly as described—and worse. There was meat there—rotting meat. And dead animals. I can’t describe the smell for you. I can describe the sound: the buzzing of a million flies feasting in the summer son.

And another sound. The whimpering of dogs. Live dogs. Dogs buried in hundreds and hundreds of pounds of rotting meat and fat.

I was so angry I was shaking. I knew what to do next: I got to a pay phone and talked to Chev—then I called the Humane Society. Hey—they rescue animals in distress, right???

An official came out—and looked shocked when I pointed out what was inside the truck. And photographer Tom O’Rourke and I carefully documented what happened next. At our “urging” the man got a ladder and climbed down into the meat and pulled out four or five half-dead dogs. He rescued them from hell.

He rushed them off to his headquarters with us right behind. Once we saw they were cared for we put him in front of the camera—and under the spotlight. I did my best to be the unbiased, neutral, fair journalist I knew Chev wanted me to be; but the first question had to be, “Those are your dogs, aren’t they?” He said he wasn’t sure. Couldn’t be sure.

Pressing ahead he had to admit that the Humane Society did dispose of animal carcasses in the rendering company semis. He did admit that they had recently taken several dead dogs there. He said he had numbers, but didn’t have descriptions of the animals.

He admitted it was possible (not probable, mind you, but not impossible) that someone had gotten the dosage wrong and that the dogs weren’t dead when they left the facility.

I had my story. I had these butchers nailed! The people charged with protecting animals had, at least in this case, tortured dogs and left them to die a horrible death. In all fairness—wait a minute, WAIT JUST A MINUTE! Fairness? There was no way to be fair in this case. There was no “other side” to interview. There were no "special circumstances to consider."

Yeah, but...

BUT WHAT? There were no BUTS as far as I could tell.

I rushed back to the station and started working on my script while the film was being processed.

Word spread fast. The whole station soon knew what I had. The Humane Society knew, too: they called Chev to try to have the story killed. He refused.

And when the film was ready he came to the editing area to look at my script and watch the footage. It seemed like most of the station came to watch, too. Everyone was stone-faced. I heard sniffling. I remember a secretary became nauseous and had to leave the room.

I took my script into Chev’s office and he suggested a change or two: he even toughened it bit.

Then he asked me if I was sure I wanted to go to air with it.

“Damn right! Why wouldn’t I? We’ve got these bastards right where we want them!”

And Chev said, “I just want you to think about this for a second. For more than fifty years the Humane Society has been looking out for animals in this county. It’s not a public agency. It gets no tax dollars. When we put this story on the air, we’ll end it all. There will be no more Humane Society of Kent County. Donations will stop. The doors will have to close. I’m not sure who will look out for animals then.”

“If this is part of a pattern—if there has been systematic abuse and negligence at that place, then they deserve everything they’re about to get. But if it was a one-time foul-up—a horrible, regrettable accident, but just an accident—we will have inflicted capital punishment on the organization for one mistake.”

"It’s your story and your decision. We’ve got several hours before the newscast. It stays as the lead unless you decide differently.”

I thought it over. I talked to my colleagues. I weighed the arguments for and against my all-time gotcha story.

I'm not much for censorship. I figure it's our job to tell people what we know. Who am I to decide that you shouldn't see a story, hear the facts? I remember the Scripps-Howard motto from back when I was a kid delivering the Cleveland Press: "Give light and people will find their own way."

But I also remembered Chev telling me that television never whispers--it only shouts. Anything I wrote, any pictures I showed would rocket through the tube directly into people's living rooms.

I put the film in my desk drawer: no sense rushing to judgement. The facts wouldn't be fair. Over the the next few days I did more checking. It looked more and more like an isolated incident, a tragic accident. The film stayed in my desk for years.

I called my “friend” at the Humane Society and told him that WOOD and I would be keeping an eye on him. I did. We did. The Society came up with an alternate way to dispose of euthanized animals. Don’t get me wrong—they still killed unwanted pets—that’s a fact of life. But to the best of my knowledge they hadn’t been and wouldn’t be running some sort of “Doggie Dachau.”

Was I right? Was I wrong? Hell, it’s 2008: today I could have started my own news cycle that might have affected every Humane Society and SPCA in America—and beyond. I’d make the cover of Newsweek. Oprah would have me on for an hour. I’d be the PETA poster boy.

In my teaching days I trotted this out for my students as one case where being factual didn’t add up to being fair. I'd like to think I was being fair to the dogs. I hope I looked out for them--they couldn't look out for themselves.

In my book, you want to be FAIR—then factual—and first would, of course, be nice.

What do you think? Discuss amongst yourselves. Post your thoughts in the “comments” section.